THE state of reggae — by its mere utterance this statement creates a wave of discomfort; induces questions both rational and irrational; introspection and produces uncomfortably glaring realities. Let's start off with this: Jamaica is dancehall country. Argue with me you may, but as Popcaan, one of our dancehall icons says, “numbers don't lie”, just as no one would fairly state that R&B runs the American music industry in 2021. While contemporary R&B artistes are hugely successful, at this time, based on the numbers — you can do your own research, yup, look it up — the youth are tuned into hip hop, and certainly are under its influence. Hip hop dominates the United States, and maybe even the world.
Similar to R&B, hip hop and soul in the US, traditional, roots-reggae defined the Jamaican experience for a time and blended what we heard, saw, felt, and rebelled against. I'm certain we pretty much know the history of reggae so there is no need for me to reinterpret or pontificate. Then we invented dancehall from reggae and everybody loved it. A little slackness, some street commentary, more waistline motion, bubblin' and not so much 'holier than thou' reggae music that inspires you to think about life in a more rigid context of righteousness and consciousness. Isn't it easy to understand why the Jamaican public and later the world would be attracted to great electronic drum beats born from reggae as we chanted along in our native tongue on some of the wickedest driving basslines the world has ever known?
Reggae has always been cool, but not always hot. It is Jamaica's most important contribution to the world and certainly to global consciousness. In true Jamaican irony, everyone loves it but we in Jamaica love it a bit less. How could that be? Well, just as beauty is always beauty but doesn't last forever, so is our relationship with reggae. A beautiful young girl can age gracefully to a beautiful woman, but she does not remain a young girl. Reggae is now aging, and while the great songs done by great artistes will live forever, we seem to be on the cusp of a transition that may lead to the expiration of certain indigenous sounds that made our greatest export (besides ganja).
Why? How can this be so... it's reggae!
I'll use the lines I have left, which I have so kindly been given to throw out my biased, 40-year-old reggae lover, reggae DJ, Rastafarian, reggae brand carrier, dancehall lover opinion.
Young Jamaican beat makers, also known as producers, are more influenced by their international counterparts such as MetroBoomin, Southside, Legendary Beatz, Noah “40” Shebib, Kanye and Timbaland, more than locals such as the likes of Steelie and Cleevie, Sly and Robbie, Dave and Tony Kelly, Stephen Marley, etc. While they respect the Jamaican names mentioned, the music they are making seems to be void of our traditional elements, and simply reflects what they really like and are into. The youth grow and create according to what they know, feel, see and hear. American and African musical production is extremely popular, enchanting and catchy. Due to everyone being able to access digital sounds, they no longer need to interpret these sounds. They can reproduce them and voice Jamaican talent.
According to a few young producers I have reasoned with, another point not to be missed is that many stalwart Jamaican producers have not mentored the next generation of Jamaican beat makers/producers. Many young producers, mixers and engineers are left to learn things on their own. This creates a lack of continuity in the music and best practices. I believe some producers and industry vanguards may still see themselves as gatekeepers of certain knowledge, production techniques and particular skill sets. After all, according to many producers, it takes years to become a producer in the truest form... its not an overnight thing. After all, it's not like we have a Reggae Music School that anyone who wants to learn can attend. The Edna Manley College of the Visual and Perorming Arts is the closest and still doesn't have a professional studio set-up or a short course for those who want to get to the point.
Reggae is hard and costly. Gathering musicians, live studio sessions, specialised equipment, research time, plug-ins is real work – you have to really love it to make it because it's not casual. It's an entire meditation, concentration and discipline to itself. Reggae is like a BMW, it's costly but will maintain it's value and will usually last longer than other cars. For a young person wanting to make beats and produce without experience and just talent and some equipment, reggae is probably the hardest thing to do and the easiest to not sound right.
The term 'reggae revival' coined by Jamaican Gavin Hutchinson, aka Dutty Bookman, is a movement that helped usher in reggae to a millennial generation, a conscious musical movement that helped to launch the international reggae careers of Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, Chronixx, Jah9, Kelissa, Dre Island, Jesse Royal, and others. Now a decade in, an industry of directors, managers, and creatives has been built around these artistes. We are now in a post-reggae revival era but the lessons from this new wave are as present as ever to teach us. It doesn't take a system, a Government, or any of the imagined barriers that I may have mentioned. All it takes is a group of talented young people, with faith, who voluntarily choose to create (in a semi-authentic form) the music that the world loves and wants from Jamaica. The pulse of most contemporary music globally is with the youth, and if reggae is not to become a nostalgic genre and keep its relevance, it has to be passed on with gratitude to the youth. In turn, it should grow and change, but always know what it is and where it is coming from. The first and second generation of musicians, vocalists and artistes gave us the best gift ever, and it is up to us to honour it, respect it, interpret it and continually give the world the sound and essence of Jamaica that it wants, needs and loves.
Jason Panton is a multi-talented creative. His roles have ranged from brand development to content creation, marketing, designer, A&R and DJ. For the past 15 years he has been designing, providing creative direction, producing music events, and weaving culture and community into branded marketing programmes.
He has also co-created a global reggae event called Dubwise Jamaica that takes place in Miami and in various cities across North America, Canada, Africa and the Caribbean. Panton holds a Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Arts & Arts Management from Nova Southeastern University, a bachelor of arts from the University of Central Florida, and a web designer certificate from the University of Miami.